A Quick Look at Protecting the Alternative Games: Three Card Poker

Alternative games are usually lucrative for the casino operator and are hard to beat, especially when the player is cheating. There are exceptions to the rule, however, and table-game expert Bill Zender points out one.

A Quick Look at Protecting the Alternative Games: Three Card Poker

Most of our game protection emphasis is placed on the more traditional and higher maximum limit card games such as blackjack and baccarat. However, some thought and consideration needs to be given to alternative games. The alternative table game of Three Card Poker, especially when the games support maximum limits off more than $100, is a good game to consider. Alternative games can be attacked in the same manner as the two primary card games of Blackjack and Baccarat with the exception of card counting, since the cards are shuffled after each hand of play.

Using Three Card Poker (TCP) as an example, what are the different avenues of attack the advantage player or the professional cheater can use to gain an unwanted edge over the games. Considering advantage play, the list is short:

  • Spying one of the careless dealer’s hole-card.

You can rule out a player collusion attack since the standard rule-of-thumb maintains that the colluding players must be able to see at least 35 out of 52 (or 53) cards before the collusion information provides them with the necessary edge to overcome the house. In a seven handed game, the TCP players can only share the knowledge of twenty-one cards before acting on their hands.

Hole-card attacks in TCP are usually limited to the knowledge of one of the dealer’s three hole-card. This limitation is created through the use of a shuffling machine that drops/deals groups cards in three-card groups. When the dealer removes the cards from the shuffler, the only card that can be exposed is the bottom card of the three-card group. Seeing more cards of the dealer’s hand is not possible unless the cards are dealt in the older fashion, from a deck held in the dealer’s hand and delivered one card at a time.

The edge gained by the advantage player on hands where he sees that single dealer card is about percent. This edge is created by the player(s) at the table who use that information to change how they act on their hand(s). With hole-card knowledge, the advantage player will ignore the computer perfect play of “calling” the ante with a hand of Q-6-4 or better and base their decision solely on the spied hole-card. If the hole-card is a qualifying card of Q, K, or A, the advantage player must hold a three-card hand greater than the qualifier plus a 9 & 2 in order to call and stay in on the hand. If the spied hole-card is not a qualifying card, the advantage player will call any three-card hand regardless.

Detection Tip: Watch for TCP players, wagering a significant amount of money, calling hands where they hold three cards that are not at least a minimum qualifying hand of Queen or less. This is a strong indication that the player is using information about cards held in the dealer’s hand.

How can management be “pro-active” and help prevent this situation from occurring in the first place? There are several procedure steps that can prevent a careless, sometimes under trained dealer from exposing a card when removing the three-card hand from the shuffling machine.

1. Have the dealer take his hand last and leave it in the shuffling machine. The shuffling machine will continue to drop three-card groups until the eight hands are delivered or until the dealer manually informs the shuffler to end the delivery. When it’s the dealers turn to take his hand, have him leave the cards in the machine and not remove and reveal them until all player hands have been call or folded. This simple procedure prevents the dealer from accidentally exposing the bottom card of the hand.

2. Use a modified plastic cut card or security card inserted into the shuffling machine’s playing card dealing well prior to dealing the hands, and have the dealer take the first hand for himself. The modified plastic cut card/security card is designed (or modified) with an open area cut into the plastic card over the area where a sensor is located in the shuffle machine’s card dealing well. The sensor will not identify that a plastic card is in the well and will deal the next three-card hand. If there was no opening in the card, the machine would not deal the next three cards. Even though the modified/security cards have an opening, it is not large enough to expose the value of the playing card. The dealer will take the first three-card hand, place it on the table in front of him, remove the plastic card, and place it off to the side. This plastic card will be inserted into the dealing well of the machine at the beginning of hand delivery.

3. Teach all dealers the importance of removing their three-card hand from the machine and placing it immediately onto the table layout without exposing the bottom card. This sounds like the simplest and easiest procedure to prevent hole-card play, however experience has taught us that dealers will get sloppy and lazy over time and management cannot totally rely on the dealers to keep the hole-card unexposed.

Regarding cheating at Three Card Poker, the two common methods are.

  • Switching cards between two players
  • Marking cards for hand play information and/or for wagering on the hand prior to card delivery.

Switching cards between to players allows the cheaters to increase the strength of the higher wagering hand at the expense of the minimum wagering hand. Cheaters will not attempt to introduce a foreign card into the game because most shuffling machines will identify that card immediately during the next card shuffling process. This card switching action is known as the “elbow-to-elbow” switch since the cheating players need to be sitting on the table next to each other with their opposite elbows basically touching.

Once receiving their playing cards, the cheaters will look at each other’s hand and determine which one of the lower wagering cheater’s cards the higher wagering cheater can use to best increase his hand. Once this has been decided, each cheater will palm the required card from his hand and place the remaining two cards face down on the table. The palmed cards are then switched under the cover of their forearms and the rim of the table and then palmed back onto the two cards remaining on the table. A third cheater will stand behind and between the two switchers and blocking any possible view of the card switching from behind. Note: The switch team sits towards the later positions on the table such as the 5th seat or later if possible.

A fourth cheater will be positioned in the first or second seat at the table with the assigned task to distract the dealer’s attention away from the two cheaters switching. The distractor needs to slow the play on the table so the two switchers have time to complete their task before the dealer gets to the switch team’s positions on the table. Usually, six to ten seconds is required to complete the switch. The distractor is also assigned the task of lookout and will be watching the area inside the pit for any indication the floor has noticed the card switching scam being used. Done efficiently, the actual playing cards being switch will not be seen even through video review, only the technique is possibly seen in identifying this cheating move.

Detection Tips: Since prevention is not a real possibility, detection is where management needs to focus their attention. Following are some indicators that there may be a card switching team working your TCP game.

  • Two players sitting elbow-to-elbow, one wagering a significant amount of money, with a third person standing behind them.
  • The two elbow-to-elbow players are also peeking at their individual hand more than one time: also known as double peeking their hands.
  • Another player sitting in either first or second betting position who is distracting; constantly talking with the dealer and slowing down the game.

Card marking is the second method of cheating. The strategy is basic but the actual card marking technique varies. In most cases, the actual markings on the cards are not detected until the cards can be closely examined. The telltale signs of marked card play are either (1) the cheater’s strategy for calling or folding the hand, (2) the cheater’s betting on the first hand dealt from the shuffler, or (3) the act of marking the cards by the cheater.

With strategy cheating play, the target cards of the card marker are typically the qualifying cards Queen through Ace and this information on all three cards of the dealer’s hand is used. This provides the cheaters with more information, and the best method for detecting the cheater’s strategy is by identifying calling and fold situations that are based on more information than the cheater’s three-card hand or spying one of the dealer’s hole-cards.

The cheater will also mark the cards in the same manner when using the information to play the first hand dealt. If the cheater looks at the top card of the first hand as it sits in the shuffling machine’s well prior to delivery and the card is marked (indicating a Queen through Ace), the cheater will bet his maximum wager. If the top card is not marked, the cheater will bet a much smaller amount. The cheater gains about a 20 percent advantage when wagering on a Queen through Ace knowing it will be one of the cards in his hand.

Another approach to spotting marked card play occurs when the cheater is actually in the process of marking the cards. If the cheater is using a “daub” or paint, this substance is applied by rubbing the fingertip across the back of the target playing card. If the cheater decides to bend or corner crimp the cards, the bend/crimp can be done several ways while holding the cards and is not as obvious to the untrained eye.

Note: It usually takes about a couple of hours to mark about 90 percent of the target cards due to the two-deck feature of the shuffling machine

Detection Tips: Cheaters using daub will apply the substance with their fingertip of their index finger. The cheater daubing will also be the cheater who will read the markings and signal the dealer’s three-card hand value to any other cheaters at the table. Before the cheating play begins, the dauber will leave the table and head to the restroom to clean off his finger and get rid of the daub cup (holder).

Articles by Author: Bill Zender

As former Nevada Gaming Control Agent, casino operator, professional card counter and casino consultant, Bill Zender has been involved in various areas of gaming and hospitality since 1976. In the past, Zender has instructed courses on game protection, card counting, advantage play and gaming operations at various colleges and institutions throughout the country. As a member of JMJ, Inc., Zender was an owner and operator of the Aladdin Hotel and Casino and has additional operational experience in card room casinos in California and is considered an expert in Asian gaming. Besides his practical gaming experience, Zender holds a bachelors in hotel administration and a masters in business. As a gaming author Zender has penned seven non-fiction books on gaming including Card Counting for the Casino Executive, and the Casino-ology series. Owner/consultant of Bill Zender and Associates, Zender spent was general manager at a major California cardroom casino from 2018-2019. For more information, visit billzender.com.